National polling generally suggests that voters trust Republicans more than Democrats when it comes to handling fiscal policy. In the lead-up to the 2022 midterms, pre-election polling from ABC News showed the GOP enjoying a 12-point advantage on the economy, compared to a 12-point deficit on the issue of abortion. More recently, CNN released a poll showing an identical edge for the GOP. These surveys beg an important question: do Republican candidates for treasurer and controller, two positions which involve fiscal policy on the state level, get an electoral bonus compared to their partisan counterparts?
As crossover voting continues to decrease, the effects of down-ballot lag that have historically enabled strong candidates to overperform have become less pronounced. Split Ticket has found that this polarization has permeated into state-level elections, helping Republican treasurers and controllers more consistently and clearly overperform their counterparts for other state row offices.
The roles of state treasurers and controllers (sometimes spelled “comptroller”) vary depending on state constitutions, but treasurers generally oversee state monetary policy and the appropriation of state government funds, while controllers function as accountants. Because both posts’ responsibilities affect the way state legislatures behave on taxing and spending, voters often perceive them as being economically impactful. If voters specifically trust Republicans on the economy in a meaningful way, the effect would materialize as GOP overperformances for these offices. Most states only have elected treasurers, but some have controllers that function as de facto treasurers. State auditors were not included in this analysis because they usually do not have the same direct influence over state monetary policy as treasurers in states were both positions exist.
To measure partisan overperformances in state treasurer and controller elections, Split Ticket quantified state-level political environments to gauge candidate performance. State-level political environments are determined as the mean partisan election results in each state. Holistically evaluating results in races for these financial offices relative to our state baselines suggests that Republicans have enjoyed a predictable bump over the last decade likely relating to persuadable voters’ aforementioned propensity to trust the GOP over Democrats on economic issues. The following sections review this effect across the country through the past decades’ election cycles.
Kentucky’s 2011 elections saw Treasurer Todd Hollenbach (D) narrowly win reelection while Governor Steve Beshear (D) easily won at the top of the ticket, shifting the apparent average statewide political environment to the left. In Mississippi, Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood’s lopsided reelection coincided with an overperformance by Republican Treasurer Lynn Fitch.
In 2012, incumbent Democratic treasurers in North Carolina, West Virginia, Washington, and Oregon all outperformed their states’ political environments, shifting the median overperformance to the left. Tar Heel State Treasurer Janet Cowell, for example, won easily even as gubernatorial nominee Walter Dalton lost by double-digits to the Republican former mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory.
Results were more mixed in 2014, but Republicans enjoyed a slightly better median overperformance of 1.6 points compared to the 2011-2012 cycle — reflective of lower voter turnout and a better national environment. Of the Democrats who overperformed, most did so by running in right-leaning environmental conditions driven by popular Republican governors like John Kasich (Ohio) and Dennis Daugaard (South Dakota). The statewide environment was similar in Maryland, where moderate politico Larry Hogan dramatically upset Democrat Anthony Brown in an unexpectedly-close gubernatorial race, though Comptroller General Peter Franchot’s incumbency also played a significant role in his overperformance.
In Delaware, moderate Ken Simpler became the last GOP candidate to be elected treasurer in the state. Republicans simultaneously won the State Auditor’s race. Simpler’s impressive victory was followed by a loss amid a hostile political environment in 2018, but he still overperformed in both cycles.
In states with unpopular Republican gubernatorial candidates, less controversial GOP treasurer and controller contenders managed to overperform (a trend also apparent in 2022). Kansas provided the best example. There, Treasurer Ron Estes (R) won by 35 points, wildly overperforming Governor Sam Brownback, who had blighted his popularity by mismanaging the state’s education system and had widely been expected to lose reelection.
While both Maryland and Massachusetts elected moderate Republican governors, their treasurer/controller results diverged down the ballot. Comptroller Franchot was Maryland’s strongest statewide candidate in 2014, while Massachusetts Treasurer Deb Goldberg underperformed every other Democrat except Martha Coakley, who lost the gubernatorial race and had previously fallen short in a pivotal Senate special election.
Thanks to a string of credible Democratic overperformers, the median overperformance in 2015-2016 was even closer to even than it had been in 2011-2012. In 2015, Republicans finally flipped Kentucky’s Treasurer office, with Alison Ball defeating Rick Nelson by the widest margin of any statewide candidate that year — a culmination of ongoing trends in the historically-Democratic state. The other Kentucky statewide races for Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State were all decided by single-digit margins, inflating Ball’s overperformance.
Like the returns from most of the other cycles, 2016’s results were largely explained by incumbency influencing statewide environments. In North Carolina, for example, Republicans flipped the Treasurer’s office by 5 points while other statewide contests remained close. The same dynamic appeared in Missouri, where the contests for Governor and Lieutenant Governor were substantially closer than the race for Treasurer, which received less national attention and culminated in a 17-point blowout.
West Virginia’s incumbent Democratic Treasurer John Perdue, on the other hand, joined gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice in winning comfortably while the rest of the statewide Democratic ticket collapsed due to Donald Trump’s 42-point victory and the trickle-down realignment of working-class whites to the GOP.
Despite a slightly smaller median overperformance for Republicans, modest GOP overperformances in races for treasurer and controller were actually more widespread across the country in 2018 than in 2014. The regularization of the magnitude and direction of overperformances made the map more uniform. There were, however, some exceptions to the pattern. Because popular moderate Republicans Larry Hogan and Charlie Baker won comfortable reelections in 2018, the statewide political environments in Maryland and Massachusetts shifted rightward, once again contributing to an inflated Franchot overperformance.
The inverse was true in South Dakota, where unpopular Republican Governor Kristi Noem won a surprisingly-close race against former Senate Minority Leader Billie Sutton, making Treasurer Josh Haeder, already a strong incumbent in his own right, seem even more formidable.
In states like New York and Iowa, popular incumbent Comptroller General Tom DiNapoli and Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald garnered enough crossover support to exceed expectations. DiNapoli’s outperforming incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo was particularly notable because the Governor simultaneously won reelection by the largest margin of his career. In Iowa, where Rob Sand’s defeat of incumbent Republican Auditor Mary Mosiman attracted most attention, Fitzgerald quietly won reelection by double digits — an even more impressive overperformance relative to the statewide environment.
2019 ended up being quite similar to 2015 in that both Kentucky and Mississippi had relatively noncompetitive contests for treasurer compared to other items that were on the ballot. For example, Bluegrass State Governor Matt Bevin (R) lost re-election to Attorney General Andy Beshear, but Treasurer Allison Ball won a second term by double-digits. In Mississippi, most Democratic candidates exceeded a 40% threshold, but Treasurer nominee Jay Hughes did not — a clear underperformance.
In West Virginia, Treasurer John Perdue finally lost reelection on the same ballot as President Trump. Governor Jim Justice, initially elected as a Democrat, was simultaneously returned to office as a Republican. Though lopsided on paper, Perdue’s 13-point loss constituted a massive overperformance (D +15.6) given the Republicans’ domination of the other row offices affecting the statewide environment.
Highlighting a recurring theme, popular governors had a significant impact on the scale of treasurer overperformances in Vermont and North Dakota. Incumbents Phil Scott (VT) and Doug Burgum (ND) defeated token Democratic opposition, increasing Democratic overperformances in associated contests for treasurer. This dynamic applied to a lesser extent in North Carolina, where incumbent Treasurer Dale Folwell (R) won easily on the same ballot as Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. Folwell’s comfortable victory likely had more to do with his personal strength as a candidate.
In Pennsylvania and Missouri, the overperformances were fairly small, a phenomenon consistent with low rates of ticket-splitting. Given its relatively-even political partisanship, Republican Stacy Garrity was able to generate enough crossover support in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to win even as Democrat Joe Biden carried the state at the presidential level. In the Show-Me State, meanwhile, the state’s solid Republican lean and lack of historic Democratic down-ballot advantages allowed the GOP to win every statewide row office.
The median overperformance of Republican treasurer and controller candidates increased by nearly two full points in 2022, the party’s best showing in the last decade. Candidate quality deltas were primarily responsible for the difference. To an even greater extent than in 2014, GOP contenders in key races for treasurer and controller presented themselves more moderately than their counterparts running for governor and Senate. California’s Lanhee Chen, for example, only lost his race for controller by 11 points, while gubernatorial nominee Brian Dahle lost by nearly 19. Maryland’s Barry Glassman lost his bid for Comptroller General by 23, while far-right Republican Dan Cox lost by 32.
Nowhere was such a difference more pronounced than in Arizona, where incumbent Treasurer Kimberly Yee won re-election by double digits as the rest of the statewide Republican ticket lost despite the GOP’s historic down-ballot advantages in Maricopa County. Evidently, voters rewarded Yee’s competency in her job as Treasurer and her mainstream messaging.
In New York, DiNapoli was once again the best-performing statewide Democrat amid a localized red wave that saw Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin overperform significantly in the race for governor. DiNapoli even outran Senator Chuck Schumer, who has historically been widely popular across the state’s various regions. In Iowa, Democratic Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald lost by 3 points, outperformed the Democratic candidate for governor and outran the statewide environment by 9, with the GOP winning all but one statewide office.
Vermont’s statewide environment was once again strongly influenced by popular Republican Governor Phil Scott’s lopsided 46-point reelection win.
Conclusion: Republican Overperformances Are More Of The Rule Than The Exception
The biggest takeaway from this analysis is that Republican overperformances in state treasurer and controller elections are not a phenomenon exclusive to the 2022 cycle, though they were somewhat more pronounced than normal last year. GOP financial officer overperformances relative to their states’ political environments over the last decade supports the conclusion that persuadable voters are more likely to support Republicans when issues of economic policy dominate the discussion, and where such candidates avoid unpopular political extremism. Republicans would be wise to keep these findings in mind ahead of the 2024 cycle.
Methodological Notes & Sources
- Uncontested row office elections and federal races were excluded.
- States are not mapped if no treasurer or controller candidate appeared on the ballot.
- Median is used instead of mean because it is less effected by outliers and better accounts for the raw number of Republican overperformances relative to individual statewide environments.
- Statewide environments were calculated using results for all row offices excluding treasurer and/or controller/comptroller. Relative overperformance was determined by taking the difference between treasurer and/or controller/comptroller share and the margin of the combined vote totals for all other contested row offices.
- In states like California and Nevada, where treasurer and controller offices are both contested, results were considered together.
- For consistency, off-year cycles have been collated with presidential cycles.
- Data gathered from David Leip’s Election Atlas.